Roumain, encircled by an array of dancers.
Photo credits: ideastream.org
Symphony for the Dance Floor is multimedia fusion at its most literal and dramatic: a rich mash-up of pop, R&B, classical, and hip-hop music with modern dance, ballet, and gymnastics. At its core is Daniel Bernard Roumain, an innovative aural sculptor who far surpasses the scope of his composer-violinist title.
Inspired by the earthquake in Haiti, Roumain’s piece – commissioned for BAM’S New Wave Festival – takes a brazen approach to the Caribbean disaster: that of celebration, exclamation, and outspoken energy. Roumain, Haitian by heritage, mentions his father’s frequent “celebrations of life” as a driving force behind Symphony for the Dance Floor. Even in the days following the earthquake, Haitian natives still kept their vivaciousness, “dancing and singing in the streets” of Port-au-Prince. Roumain translated this resilience of spirit into a vibrant, deeply complex musical and visual performance.
Roumain made his first appearance as an enlarged shadow behind a projection screen, introduced by DJ/emcee Lord Jamar. The fog and mirror act never completely died down, even after he made his way onto the actual stage. A smoke screen and flaring lights enveloped the stage as he bowed and plucked his violin with fervor, wildly interacting with Jamar’s hip-hop beats. “Inseparable” saw the full theatrical scope of Roumain’s violin technique. He switched from lightning fast, high pitched bow notes to resonant hand plucks, occasionally rapping on the violin’s wooden exterior. At his boldest, he held the bow between his teeth during plucks.
Despite the dramatic façade, Roumain is first and foremost a musician, and a powerful one at that. He plays violin with the soul-driven vigor of improvised hip-hop, and the genteel tact of a pondering classical violinist, letting the breadth of his instrument shine through quality of sound rather than quantity. Against Jamar’s club-thumping drum and guitar loops, Roumain kept his part simple but powerful. Whenever fitting, he interjected with downturned accents and high-pitched whines.
Millicent Johnnie intertwines with Roumain.
Photo credits: africlassical.blogspot.com
Choreographer Millicent Johnnie and her dance group brought forward the “dance floor” dimension of the fierce symphony. The company of stylistically versatile dancers underscored Roumain and Jamar’s dynamic aural texture with dynamism of a different sort. At times rhythmic and beat-driven, other times echoing classical ballet, they infused the stage with an intriguing visual contrast. Roumain intertwined with the dancers while playing violin, both mingling with and adapting their physical energy into passionate musical propulsion. The music-dance union shone most strikingly in Roumain’s closing composition with Millicent Johnnie, entitled “The Loss”. Initially a teasing mingling between the two artists, the piece slowly unfolded into a gymnastic and musical feat charged with graceful sensuality. Johnnie first balanced herself along the full length of Roumain’s forward-arched back. She gripped the violinist’s legs and wove around his limbs with slow precision. Their culminating “body sculpture” elicited a bit of laughter from the audience: Roumain lay on his stomach and – with Johnnie stepping along his back – slid his bow with absolutely no loss of virtuosity.
A motif punctuated Symphony for the Dance Floor, first in film form, then adapted to on-stage performance. Roumain briefly left the stage, letting a pre-recorded black-and-white film projection take his place. The film was an odd ode to the violin, perhaps a cross between hyper-symbolic indie cinema and a slow, intense music video. Johnnie handled a single violin as a miniature dance partner, moving in deliberate tandem with the stringed instrument. Shots of Roumain’s fierce bow technique punctuated her evolving dance. Johnnie’s company realized the recorded piece with violin replicas later in the symphony, accompanied by the violinist in the flesh. The reprise did feature a grippingly bizarre form of instrumentation: a multi-pitch, multi-tonal array of guttural sighs, grunts, and intonations.
Amid the conglomerate of spicy violin, hip-hop, and dance, the evening’s best moments were some of its quaintest. Tucked away at a piano in a corner of the stage, Cynthia Hopkins’ sparse chords and quirky folk vocals simmered the vivacious evening into serene introspection. Roumain matched her pitch and tone to near perfection, mingling in harmonic intervals with her witty lyrical musings. A single dancer slinked across the stage with a tad too much provocativeness, though Hopkins overcame the damper with a delicate and understated charm.
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